Readings: 2 Timothy 1: 1-14, Luke 17:5-10
We pray: speak to us through your Word, O God that we might hear what it is that you would have us be and do – in the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Have confidence, says Jesus, that when you take the risk of faith seriously, from one small moment of planting can come great things because you are clothed in the power of God. And to serve is, in itself, enough.
Today I want to share the story and the words of a person for whom this became an absolute truth, someone who, despite their best efforts to avoid anything even remotely religious in their life, experienced the transforming power of God - in the act of eating and drinking round the table of Holy Communion. Her name is Sara Miles, she lives in America and her story begins in her words:
“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions [of Americans] –except up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.”
In her book “Take This Bread” Sara describes her early life and her family background – all grandparents were active preachers, evangelists, missionaries – her mother carried as a baby in a laundry hamper to Baghdad and her father born in the mountains of Burma. They were drawn, all of them, to a social gospel of transformation through Jesus – they all of them found the transition back into ministry in America difficult and frustrating. Sara’s parents were having none of this – proud as they were of their parents sense of justice and care, they were determinedly secular, deeply uneasy of many of religion’s perceived values and cultural dogmatisms and aggressively anti faith of any kind.
The adult Sara stepped out into the world of the 70’s and 80s – an activist, journalist, chef, she was involved in wars, revolutions, the rights of the poor and marginalised – she was in there boots and all. She was bi-sexual, spending time in relationships with both men and women, became a mother – and she sat beside friends dying of aids, hearing some in the church saying this was just reward for indulging in the perversity of homosexuality. Throughout this time, these experiences, food had always been important to her – that sense of hospitality around the table, of sharing food with the needy out the back door of the seedy restaurant, of creating bonds and sharing experience with other people, of understanding the world really.
And so in that moment of eating a simple piece of bread – wheat and yeast and water – she found all her life experiences coming together in a profoundly meaningful way where she recognised her hunger was not just for food, not just for justice and peace, but for something bigger. Continuing with her words: “ Holy communion knocked me upside down and forced me to deal with the impossible reality of God...... Faith for me didn’t provide a set of easy answers or certainties: it raised more questions than I was ever comfortable with. The bits of my past – family, work, war, love – came apart as I stumbled into church, then reassembled, through the works communion inspired me to do, into a new life centred on feeding strangers: food and bodies, transformed. I wound up ...in something hungrier and wilder than I had ever expected; the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ.”
And what happened was this: Sara turned that bread of communion into tons of groceries, piled up at the church to be given away, establishing food pantries all over the neighbourhood, food for the poor, elderly, sick, the helpless and hopeless and marginalised – helping not just to feed them but to help them belong at the table. From a small moment a deeply effective and profound ministry of feeding not just herself but as many as she could reach who were hungry.
So how could she, who had always seen any religious practice or belief as intrinsically entangled with all that was wrong with the world, how could she even slightly connect with this God. Yet she did – in that moment of the taking of the bread and wine she recognised Christ as a force for connection, for healing, for love – a force that could change our own real lives, not to mention the world, for the better. And this is how she puts it:
“..this is my belief: that at the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform us. As I found to my surprise and alarm, it could speak even to me: not in the sappy, Jesus-and-cookies tone of mild mannered liberal Christianity, or the blustering hellfire of the religious right. What I heard, and continue to hear, is a voice that can crack religious and political convictions open, that advocates for the least qualified, least official, least likely; that upsets the established order and make a joke of certainty. It proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and the unworthy, the screwed up and the pious, and then commands everyone to do the same. ...and it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God’s.”
Faith, for Sara, wasn’t and isn’t about proving the rightness, the existence of God, or even establishing the doctrine of God – it was about living within the reality of the table where all are welcome and acting that out in her life.
And so as we come to the table today, along with people throughout the world, up and down the country and across all denominational boundaries in this city may we know it as more than a familiar ritual, more than a place of safe homecoming, more than a place where Christ says ‘well done you good and faithful servant’. May it also be a place to which we bring our offerings, in the real expectation of sharing them with those hungry for food and for life, a place where we encounter Christ and are at peace with each other, where we welcome the stranger into our family and from where we go, transformed, to offer hospitality to all those who have need of it. Amen